Early Career of Janos Hunyadi

  By Raider, 1 January 2007; Revised 1 January 2007
  Category: Hungarian History
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Hungary After King Sigismund

When Louis the Great died and left his throne to his daughter, a period of political turmoil began in Hungary and Sigismund needed more than a decade to stabilize his rule. Sigismund, just like Louis I, also did not have a male heir, only a daughter, and he did everything necessary to avoid such a chaos after his own death. He appointed his son-in-law, Albert Habsburg (as Albert V duke of Austria), to be his sole heir. His daughter, Elizabeth had to content herself with the role of a queen consort. In 1437, the dying Sigismund also had his willful wife (Barbara Cilli) seized to ensure Albert’s succession. Finally, Albert I was crowned without any problems, although he had to nullify some of Sigismund’s reforms because of the demands of the Diet (January 1st 1438). After the coronation, he left Hungary to secure his other heritage, the throne of Bohemia.

Meanwhile the Ottoman Empire successfully regained its strength after the disastrous battle of Ankara against Timur Lenk. The peace treaty between the Ottomans and Hungary expired, and, in 1439, an Ottoman army besieged an important Hungarian border castle, Smederevo (hung. Szendrő). By the time Albert assem

King Albert
King Albert
bled an army, the castle fell and the king did not risk a battle. Cholera spread at the camp and Albert died.

Albert only had an unborn child and the country faced a dilemma. Even if Albert’s child would be a boy and survive the birth, a baby is not able to rule and defend the country from the Ottoman threat. A fraction invited Władysław III of Poland, from the Jagiellon dynasty (hung. Jagelló), to the throne while the other wanted the newly born Ladislaus Posthumus to the throne. Plans of a marriage between Władysław and Elizabeth , the dowager queen (daughter of Sigismund) failed.

Elizabeth secured the Holy Crown. Her handmaiden, Helena Kottanner, stole the Holy Crown from the castle of Visegrád, and baby Ladislaus was legally crowned as Ladislaus V.  There was no crown at the coronation of Władysław, so the Diet temporarily transferred all power of the Holy Crown to a reliquary crown of St. Stephen. The Polish king, Uladislaus I, was crowned with this jewel, although the legal validity of this act is highly questionable.

As there were two kings, a civil war was inevitable. In the war of the two Lászlós, the Bohemian László (Ladislaus V.) was supported by the richest and most powerful lords (Garai, Cilli, Brankovic, Szécsi), the cities, and his uncle Frederick III, king of Germany. The Polish László (Uladislaus I) was supported by the majority of the Lords (Újlaky, Rozgonyi, Hédervári, Pálóczy etc.) and the lesser noblemen. Polish help was minimal, and Polish nobility did not want to encroach into a Hungarian civil war. It was the perfect time for an ambitious man to ascend.

Janos Hunyadi’s Way to Power

Janos Hunyadi was born ca. 1405/1407. His father, Voicu, was a Wallachian immigrant who became a knight-at-court (lat. aulae regie miles) in the service of king Sigismund. In 1409, for his services, the family was given the castle of Hunyad (Hunyadvár, later Vajdahunyad, rom. Hunedoara), hence the surname Hunyadi (meaning of Hunyad).

As a young noblemen, Janos Hunyadi served several lords. He was a page at Pipó of Ozora around 1420, then served Stefan Lazarevic the Serbian despot until 1427. Here, he met László Szilágyi of Horogszeg, his future father-in-law, who was a leading familiaris of the despot. After the death of the despot he served the Csáki family (~1427-29) then István Újlaki (~1429-30). [NOTE: In Hungary the contract between lord and familiaris could be dissolved any time and was not inheritable, unlike the contract between the Western vassal and overlord.] He made a friendship with the younger brother of his lord, Miklós Újlaki, and, later, their cooperation became decisive in Hungarian politics (Hunyadi became regent of the kingdom, while Újlaki became king of Bosnia). In 1430, he entered the service of king Sigismund whom he escorted to his foreiging travels. Bonfini (the court chronicler of Hunyadi’s son) states that, in Italy, Hunyadi served Filippo Maria Visiconti the duke of Milan, but the solidity of this statement is questionable. He fought in the Hussite Wars under Sigismund and the Southern Frontiers of Hungary under Frank Tallóci the ban of Severin (hung Szörény). When Tallóci abdicted in 1439, he was appointed as the new ban of Severin (hung. Szörény). As a ban he became a baron of the kingdom, but still only a lesser baron (33rd in the list).

In the following civil war, he chose Uladislaus I, and, in the battle of Bátaszék (1441), Hunyadi and Miklós Újlaki defeated the supporters of Ladislaus Posthumus. After this victory, the Habsburg fraction lost his army. Only the hussite mercenaries of Jan Jiskra (hung. János Giskra) [a Bohemian mercenary leader] held Northern Hungary. The Habsburgs also held some castles on the western edge of the kingdom and Esztergom was succesfully defended by Cardinal Dénes Szécsi, archbishop of Esztergom. Uladislaus I ruled over Central, Southern and Eastern Hungary. As a reward for their victory, Uladislaus appointed Újlaki and Hunyadi (jointly) to voivode of Transylvania and count of Timis (hung. Temes). Hunyadi also remained the ban of Severin (hung. Szörény) and Újlaki kept the banate of Macva (hung.Macsó) and the capitancy of Székesfehérvár (lat. Alba Regia). They also gained control over the royal salt-monopoly, a tremendous power, even if they had to pacify these territories. Hunyadi and Újlaki nominally administered these territories jointly, but it seems that the territories west of the Tisza river were Újlaki’s and east of the Tisza were Hunyadi’s.

Early Battles with the Ottoman Empire

Little is known about the early battles of John Hunyadi. To reconstruct these battles, historians often used the chronicle of Antonio Bonfini. Unfortunately, he is rather unreliable, his descriptons were sometimes too modern, too semantic, and full of many antic clichés. Many reconstructions can be found about these battles.

Yet, in 1440, an Ottoman army unsuccessfully besieged Belgrade (hung. Belgrád or Nándorfehérvár, lat. Alba Bulgarica), defended by Jovan the prior of Vrana and his brothers, the Tallócis. When a year later Ishak, bey of Smederevo (hung. Szendrő) approached Belgrade, Hunyadi defeated him with his troops.

Battle of Irongate, 1441

Perhaps, as a retort the following year, a large Ottoman force attacked Hungary. The Ottoman forces were divided into three parts. One army attacked Slavonia and was defeated by Matkó Tallóci, and one besieged the castle of Szrebernik. Frank Tallóci led a relief force to Szrebernik, but he was defeated and got POW. The third Ottoman army of 10 000 irregulars, led by Mezid bey of Vidin, attacked Transylvania. Mezid bey defeated bishop György Lépes near Sântimbru (hung. Marosszentimre). Then, Hunyadi left Timisoara (hung. Temesvár) where he awaited the Ottomans to attack the withdrawing marauders near  the Vaskapu (Irongate, not the Danube gorge, but a pass in Hunedoara/Hunyad county). It is said that a Hungarian spy managed to overhear the Ottoman plan. Mezid bey concentrated his forces to kill Hunyadi, as he believed that the masterless army would be easy prey. To avoid this danger, one of Hunyadi’s trusted men, Simon Kemény (in other references Simon Kamonyai), carried Hunyadi’s banner. Kemény stood on the right wing with the banner of the commander, while, in reality, Hunyadi stood in the left wing. The Ottomans concentrated to the Hungarian right to kill Hunyadi. Although they managed to kill Kemény, the real Hunyadi on the left could charge the weakened Ottoman right wing. An outbreak of the Hungarian captives on the rear of the Ottomans ensured a Hungarian victory. Mezid and his sons were killed. In the same year, Hunyadi helped a Hungarian friend voivode to the Wallachian throne.

[NOTE: Some sources says that Hunyadi was present at Sântimbru and he led the army.Sometimes Sibiu (hung. Nagyszeben) appears falsely as the place of the second battle.Others say that the second battle was at Alba Iulia (hung. Gyulafehérvár)]

Battle of Ialomiţa River, 1442

In 1442, Sehabeddin (Sa’d ed-din ?), the beylerbey of Rumelia (commander of Ottoman troops in Europe), attacked Wallachia with an army of 25-30 000 men. This time the army was reinforced with akincis and janissaries. Though the akincis were not present at the battle, they were sent away to plunder the countyside. The Hungarian army (cca. 10 000 men) waited in the valley of Ialomiţa (In Hungarian references often seen as Jalomica) and were reinforced by Hussite warwagons. In the strait valley the traditional Ottoman flanking tactics did not work well and the power of the knight’s charge could be more effective. The pretentious beylerbey did not mind the unfavourable terrain. Even so, the Hungarians w

Janos Hunyadi in the Thuróczy Chornicle
Janos Hunyadi in the Thuróczy Chornicle
ere not able to break the Ottoman line until the warwagons attacked the Ottoman rear, simultaneously with a frontal charge of the heavy cavalry. This was the first time that Ottoman forces encountered war wagons and the element of surprise was a key factor.


None of these battles were decisive and none of these battles caused notable damage to the Ottoman power, but they were long awaited victories for the Hungarians and established the Hunyadi myth, his reputation as an invincible "turkish beater”. It was also a turning point. The defensive policy ended and a series of crusades and offensive campaigns followed.